April 29 was a day to mark on
my calendar. It was the second of two splendid concert performances
at the Théâtre du Châtelet and lucky Parisians could
bathe in the lush, bronzed musical rhetoric of Massenet’s masterpiece,
Werther. That indefatigable champion of French music, 70 year old conductor
Michel Plasson, was conducting his orchestra, the Orchestre National
du Capitole de Toulouse. American stars, baritone Thomas Hampson and
mezzo Susan Graham, were the amorous but doomed lovers. Their Act I
duet had this jaded critic reaching for his Kleenex.
I was able to buy a ticket the
day of the concert but the house was full. The stars shone brightly
in their roles, a formidable supporting cast was also on stage and the
energy was high. Hampson, singing a famous tenor role that the composer
himself rewrote for a popular contemporary baritone, held nothing back
and his moody title character was one of the most masterful and soaring
portrayals I have ever heard in that theater. Susan Graham, who was
recently in the same theater as Queen Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens,
again demonstrated that she is without peer in the French romantic mezzo
repertory. Well supported by a cast including the gifted baritone Stéphane
Degout as Albert and soprano Sandrine Piau as Sophie, it was an evening
that will long be remembered by those in the audience. With the microphones
and television cameras, it is likely to have been recorded for some
future recording or TV broadcast. As well it should be. It was indeed
a triumph for all concerned and the ovation and flower tossing at the
end was unprecedented.
But what is most remarkable about
this evening is its rarity. It is seldom that the French romantic repertory
gets the spotlight in Paris. A few years ago, in the magazine Opera
News, the French coloratura star Natalie Dessay observed that the French
really don’t like French music. She was, I believe at the time, frustrated
by her failure to interest French opera houses in a performance of Leo
Delibes’ Lakmé. I remember being surprised by this offhand remark
at the time but subsequent observations would only confirm the truth
of the statement. It is hard to find the extraordinarily rich Nineteenth
century body of French composition on the opera or concert stages in
Paris or around France.
Everywhere else in Europe, you
find native composers being played with unrelenting regularity by their
compatriots. The Finns play their Sibelius, the Poles play their Chopin
and Szymanowski, the Norwegians play their Grieg and the Russians their
Shostakovitch and Tchaikovsky. Even the English play their own composers
at every opportunity. You can get some idea of this by noting that there
are now two competing, and very fine, recordings of the complete symphonies
of Arnold Bax available in UK shops.
At the Orchestre National de France,
France’s top radio orchestra, the grand Kurt Masur conducted, in March,
a cycle of the Brahms symphonies and concertos. This was another installment
of the cycles he has scheduled since taking the reigns of Music Director
and follows the Beethoven and Mendelssohn cycles of his first two years.
These concerts are the hottest tickets in town. Maestro Masur, in interview
after interview, boasts of his orchestra’s ease and sophistication in
the German repertory.
Ironically, on my way to the opening
concert of the Brahms cycle at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées,
on my car radio, the music director of the Orchestre de Paris, Christoph
Eschenbach, was being interviewed. He was boasting of the virtues of
his orchestra in the German repertory, prior to a recorded performance
of a Mahler symphony, even asserting that the orchestra’s founder, the
legendary Charles Munch, created the new orchestra in 1967 so that the
Beethoven symphonies could be properly played. Next season, not to be
outshone by rivals, the Orchestre de Paris will do cycles of Brahms,
Beethoven and Mendelssohn in a single season! The third orchestra in
town, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under its conductor
Myung-Whun Chung, racing to catch up, is doing a cycle of the Mahler
symphonies next season.
This bizarre competition between
two German podium giants to convince the Parisians that their own orchestra
is more echte Deutsch (purely German) is most likely reading the French
public desires correctly. It is foolish to put an entire nation on the
couch but you have to wonder if the French have some sort of inferiority
complex about their musical heritage. A review of the recent seasons
of the major orchestras and operas in Paris confirm only sparse programming
of the French romantic or impressionist repertory.
It is, of course, difficult to
contest the dominance of the giants of the German and Austrian repertory.
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the others will always have pride of place
in the world’s performance calendars. But why the French give so little
space and attention to their own musical masters is a question that
baffles outside observers.
The bicentenary of Hector Berlioz’
birth was celebrated last season and he is perhaps the most egregious
example of how they hold their musical sons at arm’s length. In recent
decades, Colin Davis, that tireless exponent of this unique musical
genius, consistently programmed Berlioz in his concerts in the UK and
America. As a result, his concerts and recordings made Berlioz far more
popular and performed abroad than at home in France.
The enforced exposure to his superb
musical palette during this celebration found the surprised French looking
at him as a prodigal son and welcoming him home as a hero. Although
the Paris Opera turned up its nose at the Berlioz year, the Théâtre
du Châtelet had a major production of Les Troyens which was recorded
for a DVD release. But the conductor, and likely instigator of this,
was another foreign Berlioz booster, John Eliot Gardiner. A single concert
performance of Benvenuto Cellini was conducted by American John Nelson
at Radio France studios. By contrast, the Metropolitan Opera had productions
of both Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini on the boards this season.
Hugues Gall’s reign at the Paris
Opera is drawing to a close and he is to be commended his brave effort
make a space for French contemporary composers in the regular season.
But otherwise, he never strayed from the path of programming only a
token number of the safe French repertory chestnuts like Carmen and
My taste in a wider view of French
opera was whetted some 9000 miles away from the City of Light. My home
town opera, the San Diego Opera, then under Tito Capobianco, had confidence
in the attractiveness of the entire repertory. I remember an involving
Henri VIII of Saint-Saëns, with Sherrill Milnes as the lusty king,
and being easily seduced by the urgent music in Chabrier’s Gwendoline.
As recently as a few months ago, a season highlight of SDO was Bizet’s
Les Pêcheurs de Perles.
Closer to France, a tireless exponent
of French music, Philippe Jourdan, created a widely heralded production
of Henri VIII for his friend Montserrat Caballé - but only in
Barcelona in 2002. Rumor has it the legendary diva is thinking about
a performance of Massenet’s Cleopâtre next season in Madrid. This
season saw a centennial production of Le Roi Arthus by Ernest Chausson
in Brussels, which has a long history of programming French opera. This
coming season, you can hear Paul Dukas’ opera, Ariane et le Barbe-Bleue
if you are passing through Zurich at the right time. There is a in-depth
festival celebrating the music of Saint-Saëns going on right now
in London and Chicago, London and Washington had recent major productions
of Samson et Dalila.
France has, from time to time,
wider reportorial choices if you are willing to get on a plane or train.
An oasis for the French music has always been the city of Toulouse.
Michel Plasson was the city’s musical chief for nearly 40 years and
his love of French repertory was tolerated, even welcomed by the audience
there. Another source was the small town of Compeigne where Philippe
Jourdan is in charge of the “Imperial Theater” and every year revives
a small slice of French musical patrimony. Last year a plucky staging
of Meyerbeer’s Dinorah was a hit with both audience and critics. But
these are voices crying in the wilderness.
In the program for the new season
which just arrived for one of the main stages of Paris, the Théâtre
des Champs-Elysées, of the three operas staged, none are French.
Of the seventeen operas in concert and oratorios to be performed, none
are French. In the concerts of the Orchestre National de France, aside
from two contemporary compositions given their French premieres, there
is no French music until page 56 of the catalogue. This is a performance
of the Symphonie Fantastique by a guest conductor, one Sir Colin Davis.
It is only in February of 2005
that we have a single French evening conducted by Kurt Masur, featuring
works by Debussy, Ravel and the Franck Symphony. The twelve programs
of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with Maestro Chung’s
Mahler Cycle, has not a single French work listed. The twelve concerts
of the Orchestre Ensemble de Paris has John Nelson playing yet another
Beethoven symphony cycle but he did find space for three small French
works as fillers. The piano recital programs listed are no less French-free
even though a good percentage of the keyboard stars are French.
The Orchestre de Paris, with its
three cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn elbowing out the competition,
managed to find space for four works by French composers with the notable
exception of two all-French evenings in January and March of next year
by the visiting Michel Plasson. In the 10 year history of that important
January gathering of musicians and audiences, the Folle Journee in Nantes,
the least successful with the ticket-buying public was the one where
director Rene Martin’s program was centered on French composers.
Token efforts are in the works.
Messiaen’s epic Saint François d’Assise is a centerpiece of the
coming Paris Opera season which also includes Poulenc‘s Dialogues des
Carmélites. The coming season in Lyon (and the following one
in Paris) will feature new productions of Chabrier’s Le Roi Malgre Lui.
The dream team of conductor Marc Minkowski and director Laurent Pelly
are taking on Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein at
Châtelet in September, hoping to recreate the success of La Belle
Hélène of 2000. But these exceptions only prove the rule.
Thanks to the leadership of American-born
William Christie and those he inspired, French baroque is a dazzling
exception. Christie’s surprising, rousing hit, Lully’s Atys, at the
Paris Opera in the early 80s, put baroque in the musical mainstream
in France and it has stayed there ever since. In May, for example, there
were two major new Rameau opera productions. The Lyon Opera had a Minkowski/Pelly
staging of Les Boréades while Bill Christie was doing a splashy,
energetic production of Les Paladins at the Théâtre du
Châtelet in Paris.
But this makes the absence of
more recent French music on the scene even more difficult to explain.
The French value their writers, poets, painters and filmmakers. The
French government’s “cultural exception” guarantees that French culture
gets a leg up on foreign competition. New compositions are commissioned
by the basketful. But the unwarranted, inexplicable distaste for French
music on the part of French audiences, a sad secret known in France
for many years, should be addressed by the cultural leadership. Should
the government insist that its subsidized institutions pay attention
to a forgotten and fast-disappearing musical legacy? There are too many
treasures gathering dust on the shelves.